The West’s Silent Spaces

By Stephanie Malin

Having just completed my dissertation, I feel a little lost. Strange, I know. I longed for this day while I sat staring at mounds of data, a computer screen, and the ticking clock. I am certainly doing more cleaning, organizing, and cooking than I thought humanly possible, and my work out routine is back to normal. Thinking back on the writing process, though, I’ve realized that one of the things that got me through the process – aside from my patient husband, insightful major professor, and encouraging parents and family – was the southern Utah landscape.

In the middle of writing ‘The Beast’ (as I affectionately termed my dissertation), my husband and I celebrated our tenth dating anniversary. Though I knew taking a break might be risky in terms of finishing on schedule, I also knew Matt and I needed to take time to enjoy the milestone. Thus, we decided to head down to one of our favorite haunts in southern Utah – and indeed, one of our favorite places in general – Capitol Reef National Park. Given our love of petroglyphs and anything archaeological, we decided we would also hit Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery. Looking back on this trip from a place of new-found calm, I now know that not only did these silent spaces help Matt and I recognize our anniversary; the red rocks, towering cliffs, and ancient rock art also inspired me to get through one of the most challenging periods of my academic training.

On the way to Capitol Reef, we first stopped at Horseshoe Canyon to walk the trail that ends with the Great Gallery. As you may know, the journey to Great Gallery is as much the destination as the ancient rock art itself; once off the highway, we took off down the 32-mile dirt road. This was our second trip to this surreal place, and we knew the road has unpredictable, shifting sand dunes, washboards that shake your car violently, and a sense of isolation and adventure unparalleled even in remote southern Utah. As we bounced down the road and made it to the rim of Horseshoe Canyon, we stepped out into a wind storm, sand stinging our faces and eyes. Descending down the cliff side, we met up with the roughly-marked path winding along the canyon bottom, towering tan cliffs on either side. With no one else in sight and four panels of rock art to observe, we were in heaven.

Once we reached Great Gallery, however, each of us had to stop, sit, and stare. You can feel this place’s special energy and silence as soon as you round the last bend before the Gallery appears, ghostly dark red and brown figures looming high above you, six-foot tall beings watching you from a different time or planet. The figures look like large mummies or elaborate warriors, though trying to identify them or attach meaning distracts from their mystical quality. So we sat there in silence. Taking it in. Breathing deeply. And wondering to ourselves what inspired people thousands of years ago to create these magical, mysterious images. All the anxiety of writing a dissertation, of an impending move, of all the looming uncertainty were whisked away in that moment of silent desert stillness.

Once in Capitol Reef, after a bumpy drive back to the main road, we completed our customary hikes and delicious, gourmet dinners at Rim Rock Restaurant. This time, though, in honor of the special occasion, we did something we never have – we hired a local guide to take us on a backcountry tour of Cathedral Valley, where you can see the Temples of the Sun and Moon. Our guide arrived early in the morning, in a weathered Land Rover, a tall, stoic, reserved cowboy named Brian. He forded a river for us, taking us deep into the backcountry on a 60-mile loop. Brian described the landscape as he saw it, giving us insights into the park that we never had before, and amused Matt and I with stories of local residents and his own escapades in the area over the years. Once we arrived at Cathedral Valley, we knew we had reached another special, silent place. The sun peeked out, illuminating the Temples and accentuating their brilliant red. Even in the whipping wind, I took a deep breath and felt the silence, surrounding me for miles and miles. Any lingering worry slipped away, and I allowed myself to just feel connected to the landscape – at once alien and deeply comforting.

On our drive out of the area, I felt refreshed, full of life and love, and ready to tackle the long haul ahead. Without these silent spaces and their soothing energy captured in my imagination, I doubted I could handle the task. With them clear in my mind, though, I could push through the stress, self-doubt, and worry and complete the daunting task ahead.

The West is full of these silent spaces, the spaces that bring peace, encourage introspection, and cultivate self-awareness. What are yours? Please share!

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